Every parent wants what’s best for their child. We go to great lengths to make sure our kid has access to a great education provided by qualified teachers. However, because every child is unique, our paths towards this goal may differ.
Our son was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Around that time, he began speech, occupational, and developmental therapies. Although he was getting all of these services, his therapists were unable to adequately judge his comprehension levels due to his severe speech delay. We simply didn’t know what he knew because he couldn’t tell us.
Because of our son’s delays and diagnosis, he was thrust into the public school system much earlier than other children. At the age of 3, public schools are required to evaluate children with suspected delays and disabilities to ascertain whether these delays/disabilities will have an impact on their education. If this is true for your child, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is created and your child will begin therapy and/or specialized instruction through the school system if you so choose.
This was our route and our public school system was in Hamilton County. We had heard horror stories about both the general education and exceptional education programs and were frightened to send our minimally verbal child into this situation. How would they accommodate his speech and sensory needs while also ensuring he received a quality education? After working with the District to create an IEP that would maximize his success, he was placed in a pre-kindergarten class at Soddy Elementary. This special class is inclusive. Children with delays/disabilities work and play alongside typically developing children. He also receives speech and occupational therapies there on a weekly basis.
The staff at Soddy Elementary are fantastic! They have worked with us over this past year to develop challenging and worthwhile goals for our son and have equipped him with the tools and accommodations he needs to be successful. One such accommodation is an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) system. It is an iPad equipped with the language/speech program Proloquo2go. It allows him to express his wants and needs, while also allowing him to interact with his peers and showing his teachers what he knows and understands. It is a key that has unlocked so many doors for him. His frustration at not being able to communicate adequately has diminished and his joy at being able to tell us what he thinks has increased. Because his IEP allows him to take his “talker” home with him, he uses it everywhere and it has dramatically improved his actual speech!
Although our experience has been good, I don’t want to sugar coat the entire thing. Having a child with a disability comes with extra struggles and requires a lot advocacy. The evaluations and IEP meetings can be very overwhelming and confusing and there is a massive amount of paperwork to work through. One parent told me she felt like she was being shot in the face with a firehose at these meetings! While this isn’t the District’s fault, these experiences could be made better in a couple of ways. First, the District needs to ensure that all caregivers understand the process and how to participate in their child’s education and IEP. This requires more than just handing them paperwork. The District may actually need to work with an educational advocacy group/caregiver mentor program that could help walk caregivers through the exceptional education maze. Second, the District should encourage caregivers to be actively engaged with the IEP team. They can do this by seeking their opinions, maintaining daily/weekly communication between teachers, related services providers, and caregivers, and encouraging caregivers to voice their opinions and concerns. While all of this is time-consuming, it is a way to ensure that all parties are on the same page and that the child in the center of all of this maelstrom is best educated.
Despite Hamilton County’s reputation, our family has found success at Soddy Elementary. It has required much work on all sides, but we believe his specialized education has given him opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Thank you to the staff and administration at Soddy Elementary. Also much praise to Garfield Adams, the District’s Exceptional Education Director, The Inclusive Education & Opportunities Action Group (who created a three year plan to rebuild the exceptional education program in Hamilton County), LifeLine, Inc., and the Chattanooga Autism Center.